Its 7 p.m. on a Saturday, and Messenger Pizza is packed.
The brick restaurant is joyful and frenetic inside, filled with the voices of families. It has an eclectic, coffeehouse feel with mix-and-match furniture, tall ceilings, huge paintings and overturned parasols illuminated as light fixtures.
A line forms to order at the counter, where theres a glass case full of pizza sold by the slice. A dizzying, colored chalkboard menu as big as a ping pong table looms overhead.
As relief for those daunted by the menu, there is a long church pew just in front of the display case where you can sit and discuss strategy. Through the service window, you can see cooks pulling tickets from a bicycle wheel and sliding huge paddles into the pizza oven.
When Messenger opened in 2010, owners Cassidy and Shawn McKinley had partnered with a second couple whose business role was to establish it as a combination brewery and pizzeria. That partnership never got off the ground, and though some of the signage still alludes to a potential brewery, Messenger has thrived by simply focusing on pizza.
The specialty pizzas are not just cleverly worded takes on standard fare, but interesting combinations, a half-dozen vegetarian. And there is an above-average assortment of choices for toppings such as smoked oysters, kosher all-beef salami, turkey bacon, and the black pepper-sugared house bacon of Brick 29. In addition to all the expected veggies, youll also find apple, cucumber, carrot and figs. Hummus is offered as a sauce.
Pizza is an easy way to please a crowd, and on two recent Saturdays, I brought groups, giving me a wide sampling of the offerings. On the first of these visits, most of our group of eight went for slices ($2.83 each), and though the line in front of us was long, we had pizza on the table within five minutes.
The pie is New York-style, and the slices are huge, cut from the largest wheel of pizza Messenger offers. Though the young woman at the counter pointed to the ubiquitous pizza-pan display to explain the sizes and told me they ran 12, 18 and 24 inches, I swear the slices we got were bigger than a mere 12 inches from center to crust. The thin paper plates provided didnt stand a chance.
Toppings are liberally applied, though the pizza is undersauced for my taste. A slice of the Toga Party specialty pie was thick with sausage, artichoke hearts, spinach and feta tasty, but it needed a fork after falling apart. And a Jalapeno Popper with cream cheese, pickled jalapenos, and chunks of fresh-cut pineapple was sweet and goopy in a good way. On a single piece of Hawaiian, the Canadian bacon was actually too much, the amount you would find on the entirety of most pizzas. I liked an unnamed piece with spinach, arugula, sun-dried tomatoes and olive oil. But the best piece of pizza was the most unusual: B29 bacon, fresh jalapeno, pesto sauce and green apple. Id never put an apple on pizza before. Now, I will.
One thing we learned, though, on this occasion and the next, was ordering anything else on the menu could mean a long wait time, and theres no impulse to coordinate orders together so everyone will eat together. While the rest of us gobbled slices, one person in our group waited another 10 minutes for his calzone. (The Scarpa Puzzolente, $5, with habaneros, basil, sausage, pepperoni, and goat cheese. It was creamier than it was savory, and a bit burnt on the bottom.) And another in our party waited almost 20 more minutes for a pizza with gluten-free crust ($1 add on to any pizza, available only in the 12-inch size).
Its terrific that gluten-free crust is even available. I dont have issues eating gluten, but several people in my family have dietary restrictions with wheat and gluten among them. And Messenger is only the second pizza place in the Treasure Valley where weve dined that makes its gluten-free crust from scratch. (The other is PizzalChik.)
On the first visit, Messengers gluten-free crust had good flavor but was too thick and biscuity. But this was better the next time, crispy and chewy, a piece of gluten-free pizza that did not draw attention to itself for what it was not. Instead, we enjoyed these pizzas for what they were: the Brooklyn Bridge ($13 for a 12-inch, $19 for 18-inch, $26 for 24-inch) with olives, roasted red peppers and slabs of that delicious kosher salami; and the Drunken Goat ($15/$20/$30), with fresh figs, B29 bacon, Rollingstone chevre and piles of baby arugula dashed with balsamic reduction.
But these pizzas should come with a heads-up: They took more than 40 minutes to appear on a night when service did not seem overwhelmed.
That second visit, I liked the regular pizza better, too, as we ordered a whole 18-inch pie, covered with oddities. The crust was elastic and flavorful, and smoked oysters are great on pizza. When we were told they were out of habaneros, the woman at the counter surprised us by offering ghost peppers, which gave us the heat we were looking for.
Local, seasonal and organic ingredients are used as often as possible here, and we found nice surprises even on the salad bar ($5.25), such as freshly sliced rainbow carrots and a standout green goddess dressing.
The selection of tap beers and local small-batch sodas rotates often. These little details make a big difference.
Email Alex Kiesig: firstname.lastname@example.org